THE PERFECT GYM IS ALL IN YOUR HEAD
As I staggered the fifteen steps from my toilet shower to my desk, sweating like a pedophile in an elementary school bathroom, desperate to find another roll of toilet paper, I lamented the fact that dysentery was going to steal yet another day of heaving around some heavy iron from me. That’s not to say I wasn’t going to train, but rather that I was going to train light to avoid crapping my pants under a heavy load. Just five days earlier I had hit an all-time high in bodyweight, 171 lbs., which was just about 10 lbs. heavier than my best bodyweight prior to entering the smog-choked land of the terra cotta soldiers.
Turning and seeing the trail of blood I'd left on the floor leading to a small pool of blood directly beneath me. I ultimately decided that discretion was the better form of valor. I should not be bleeding from the rectum unless I was shot in the browneye by an overzealous and underfed Chinese soldier. Thus, gym day was needed.
After a moment of half-delirious consideration, I washed down enough anti-laduzi (Mandarin for diarrhea and the only word of Chinese my dad ever learned) to prevent a normal person from ever crapping again. I fired up the showerhead over the toilet bowl because my asshole felt like it had spent a weekend with Marseilles Wallace’s buddies, a pair of pliers, and a blowtorch. So a shower was vastly preferable to scrubbing my abused asshole with what amounted to sand paper but was alleged to be toilet tissue.
I have no earthly idea how much money my dad spent in sending me Met-Rx in 1998, but it was not an inconsiderable sum. He was the man.
Unless you’re a fecal-feliac, you’re likely wondering what the hell this story has to do with anything lifting related. The tie-in, rather than another rant about eating to grow, is that I managed to pack on ten pounds. In addition, eleven pounds of rip in about six weeks without the aid of supplements. However, beyond a couple of meal replacement shakes and/or protein bars a day, and of those six weeks I had dysentery for at least three. Not only that, but I accomplished that feat in the most rudimentary gym I’ve ever seen that wasn’t in Uganda.
I’d already been training for five years, so these weren’t noob gains. Add to that, it was summer in Beijing, so the temperature ranged from 90-100 degrees in the daytime with the smog-choked humidity so thick you had to use a steak knife to cut it before you could take a deep breath. The gym in which I trained daily didn’t even have a goddamned fan, never mind an air conditioner.
Nah- this isn’t another public service announcement to enjoin you to eat like your white trash at a crappy buffet. This is a statement regarding the endless online discussions about finding the right gym to ensure success. This debate, like the mindset behind it, is entirely wrongheaded. As it is with choosing a program, the maximization of success with gym selection is far less about the equipment than it is about the effort one expends on the equipment they’re using.
Herschel Walker built an unbelievable physique with little more than thousands upon thousands of pushups and sit-ups, and a crap ton of sprints. At 51, he almost certainly looked better than you and everyone you know with that routine. He spent literally nothing on gym memberships beyond an MMA school.
Built a crazy strong and muscular physique with a routine centered on PHA (peripheral heart action) training that mostly utilized a Marcy trainer. The predecessor to multi-station Universal machines.
For his role in Reign of Fire, Matthew McConaughey literally grappled with cows and carried stuff around his ranch to bulk up. His basic weight workouts, like Bruce Lee’s and Sonny Chiba’s, three days circuit training. Nothing special, yet the dude looked like a badass in that flick without ever touching a bumper plate.
Big Jim Williams was the first man in history to bench 660lbs. Still one of the biggest benchers ever, despite the fact that he had to take all of his attempts back-to-back, and he did almost all of his training in prison. Despite what you might think, weightlifting equipment in jails is hardly state of the art. At the time Williams competed bench presses were notoriously rickety even in high-end gyms.
In case you missed it, there are dudes in Africa who are doing a hell of a lot more with a hell of a lot less than you.
The list of athletes and celebrities who have done amazing things with their physiques in rudimentary gyms or *gasp* on machines is endless and dates back to antiquity, and should provide ample evidence to convince most people that they needn’t train at the regional “hardcore,” “functional” gym that happens to be the talk of the internet in order for them to maximize their potential.
Though I realize this simple fact should be easy to grasp, I fully realize it isn’t because the internet mostly exists to destroy the fabric of reality and replace it with bull-crap. As such, here are a couple of gym anecdotes that might help to drive the point home:
My favorite machine in high school, and one that tragically no longer exists- a weighted dip/pullup/calf raise machine.
My old high school gym was a 1980’s special, donated by a former student who upgraded his home gym and gave us the stuff he’d bought a decade prior. It boasted a Marcy multi-gym, a few old Nautilus machines, a squat rack, mismatched dumbbells, and a couple of benches. Everything was old and jacked up, and we loved it. In two years, my bench went up 140 lbs. and I went from a pudgy kid to a three-sport varsity athlete with school records for bodyweight exercises.
World Gym Tucson, which is now a boxing gym, was the best gym in which I have ever trained. The bodybuilding mecca of southern Arizona in the 1990’s, our member rolls included IFBB pro Rusty Jeffers, a couple of Westside transplants, and the most entertaining cornucopia of weightlifting maniacs I’ve ever seen. It had no AC, no pussies, and an absolute lunatic for an owner who would physically throw people out of the gym for minor gym rule infractions like leaving a plate leaning against the squat rack.
Powerlifters and bodybuilders trained together (I don’t think I even met an Olympic lifter until after 2000, and internet icon Steve Pulcinella was the only person I’d ever met who competed in strongman prior to 2004 or 2005), and all of the serious lifters went to every competition our gym’s members entered… mostly because at that time people only competed to win, not to show up and collect a goddamned participation trophy. Every person I knew in that place was jacked and strong, and we’d have non-stop impromptu competitions on everything from squatting for reps to deadlifts to bench to one
arm dumbbell rows.
Top Gym Vienna. With the motto “No Wellness,” I knew these were my kind of people. At the time, I was eating paleo and although prevented by EU law from taking ephedrine, was a ripped-to-shreds 170lbs when I returned home, after repping 440 on the front squat and doing ballistic pullups as the gym’s sole strength athlete. You don’t need to train in a strength-oriented gym to be crazy strong. Everyone else in that gym was an old school string-tank-top-and-spandex-shorts clad bodybuilder or figure competitor stick figure, yet we all got along famously and killed it in the gym daily. To say there was a lot of gratuitous high fiving going on between sets is like saying the volleyball scenes in Top Gun are slightly homoerotic, and that kind of rampant positivity and mutual respect made for a badass training environment.
Iron Sport Gym is one of the few strength gyms on the planet I don’t despise, and I’ve made massive gains because of training there periodically over the last 20 years. To give you some idea of how long I’ve known Stevie P, I found his gym as the result of seeing his ad in the Yellow Pages of the phone book years ago. If you’re unfamiliar with him, he’s the progenitor of the DYEL meme, a World’s Strongest Man competitor, a Hall of Fame Highland Games competitor, and one of the most hilariously surly people on the planet.
He’s one of the most knowledgeable guys in strength sports, and our conversations helped mold my training methodology. If you’re ever in the Philadelphia area, check it out. It’s packed with pro bodybuilders, pro strongmen, elite Oly lifters, and several powerlifters of varied skill levels (though I’ve heard their gossip game is on a bean).
24e– This was the gym I trained in to set my world record, in a chrome squat rack with bars that I bent completely out of shape. It boasted no competitive strength athletes at all, had a perpetually broken homemade platform, nothing but octagonal plates, and a handful of competitive bodybuilders. Three or four guys in there benched over 500lbs (despite the bent, dead bars with collars that wouldn’t spin and slippery vinyl benches) and never took a single gym selfie or video of themselves doing so, because they were far more interested with lifting than with posing online as lifters when they’d rather be doing anything else.
This gym was also the birthplace of my supplement company, and generally stands as proof that gyms are built on people, not equipment, and that bodybuilders make a gym, while powerlifters generally ruin them. That said, “mainstream” obsessed money grubbing dickheads can kill a gym even more quickly than USAPL lifters, and that gym was the victim of on such crap-slug.
Renmin University gym. This is the gym in Beijing. It boasted no fans, no AC, enough rust on the plates to give you tetanus just looking at a photo of the gym, two extremely unsafe squat racks, and a single bench. This place even lacked dumbbells, and it was so goddamned hot in there that I looked like I’d just gone for a swim in my clothes after my second warmup set. It was in that primeval place that I learned how to pack on mass quickly, lifting heavy as hell on made-up exercises and just going nuts the entire time shirtless in rust-stained shorts.
Stern’s Gym in 1970 and his gym in 2001 were not appreciably different.
I’ve got plenty more examples because I’ve trained all over the place. I once did a set of 97 reps with 135lbs on the squat, weighing maybe 150, in a squash club’s tiny gym. I’ve done death sets of deadlifts overlooking the Hong Kong skyline in a posh resort’s fitness center. Threw around some weights with the guitarist from Sworn Vengeance at the awesome hardcore gym 22nd St Barbell in Iowa.
Partially re-tore my bicep goofing around with the gym owner of an awesome Ninja Warrior/strongman gym outside of Chicago called Golden Age Strength Club. I’ve had awesome workouts in innumerable Gold’s Gyms, Powerhouses, 24 Hour Fitness’s around the country, plus the iconic Golds and Worlds in Venice Beach and Vince Gironda’s gym there, Leo Stern’s gym in San Diego that was practically a museum piece when I trained there, among many others.
Hell, I’ve trained in a Guido gym in Pittsburgh that even had a shrine, an honest to God shrine, to Robert DeNiro in it. An LA Fitness in North Hills, PA in which the dudes were so juiced up they had to wipe the pus off the benches between sets because their back-ne would burst and have even seen dudes’ bench 405 on free weight benches in Planet Fitness. In short, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what constitutes a good gym, and what you need to have a good lift… and it’s not the facility or the equipment. It’s the people who train there and the people who run the place.
If you can’t find someone you want to bang in a CrossFit gym, you need to get your test levels checked, ladies included.
If you want to dispute that, feel free, because I have one trump card you can’t beat. CrossFit gyms. If the ridiculous performance of Cross Fitters in the Games isn’t proof of concept enough, consider the following. If you’re going to be training half naked with a bunch of people who are trying to outlift and outhot you, chances are you’re going to think twice about skipping workouts or cheating on your diet. The motivation of others will carry over to you. Likewise, if you’ve got an undiscussed competition going on with some bench bro from your gym and you know they’re going to be checking to see how many reps you get on behind the neck press out of the corner of their eye, you might push a little harder when it’s time to do your accessory work.
The equipment you’re using to achieve the strength you want to display is only an impediment if you’re a complete bitch who wants to excuse your weakness with nonsense. In fact, training on crappy equipment has the benefit of making the same weight on a good bar or a good bench seem light by comparison, so when you hit the platform weights that were a struggle, they absolutely fly up… and it will give you extra reasons to excuse unimpressive training weights when you’re typing comments on Instagram (seriously, stop that crap already. Your every goddamned lift does not need to be filmed).
If only New Orleans Athletic Club would allow people to train in their historic weight room…
Speaking of training on different equipment, much of the online discussion about choosing a gym seems to come from people with little experience in doing so and even less in lifting. It’s a literal matter of the blind leading the blind, which necessitates one other entreaty. For the love of all that is unholy, hit up some other gyms in your area. See what is out there. Get in some workouts on unfamiliar equipment, around unfamiliar people.
Not only will this give you a great deal more perspective on the subject of what actually constitutes a great gym, but you may discover your gym is inferior to other gyms, be they an LA Fitness, a Planet Fitness, or Ryan Cellis’s awesome spot in Pittsburgh. You might find that you have some of the best workouts of your life while travelling, because you will likely feel the need (like I do) to immediately insert yourself into that gym’s strength hierarchy… and you might come to find that your gym isn’t the local end all, be all of strong mofos in the area.
If the gym in Todd Schorr’s mind was open to the public, I would be the first mofo on the planet to sign up for a membership.
In short, the perfect gym is likely out there, but it exists between your ears. Hell, even athletes who own badass gyms like Kansas City Barbell agree. The owner, Jay, told me that his best experiences lifting were not at his own gym but at the old Worlds Gym in Reading, PA, because he was lifting with a pro-Highland Games competitor and a dude who played in NFL Europe and every training session was beyond ball-out. Equipment isn’t holding you back when you train. Your mind is. The gym isn’t the problem. You are. Greatness is within your grasp, but you’ve got to be your own salvation. Keep an eye out for the people who train hard. Not the Instagram ass-hats constantly filming every goddamned thing for the internet, and not the assholes who foam roll for an hour before they train (incidentally, I will be gassing those sonsabitches my first day in office as overlord of post-apocalyptic America).
All that stuff is window dressing to disguise the fact they’re not there to train, but to preen. Forge your own path and own it rather than placing your destiny in the hands of strangers, whether they be on Facebook or the owners of your gym or anyone else. And remember, the perfect gym is not a physical location but a mental one, formed out of your mindset, desire, and drive. Build one worthy of attaching to a drinking hall in Valhalla, because the alternative is dying unremembered.
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